Whitwell’s notorious seven
PUBLISHED: 09:59 05 November 2013 | UPDATED: 09:59 05 November 2013
clive tagg 2013
The pubs of Whitwell were once seven in number and notorious by reputation, giving the village a ‘drunken’ epithet. Sarah Beecroft goes in search of poachers, soot spreaders, brawlers and ghosts
I’m sat sipping Earl Grey tea in a room where poachers supped ale and sung by candlelight long into the night. This is the sitting room at the home of Dr Doris Jones-Baker – a 16th century oak-beamed room in a former farmhouse, which from the 1820s until after the Second World War was The Lamb public house in Whitwell, a small village along the River Mimram in the parish of St Paul’s Walden.
There is perhaps nobody more qualified than Doris when it comes to the history of the village and indeed the county. She’s written four books about Hertfordshire’s past and is the former president of the Hertfordshire Association for Local History. There’s little this 88-year-old historian, who studied at Fletcher’s School of Law and Diplomacy, Massachusetts, and has an MA and PhD in philosophy and history, hasn’t unearthed about the county that became her home.
While working for the US State Department as a historian, Doris met and married an Englishman. She and her now 92-year-old husband Lionel decided to settle in England and made Lamb Cottage in Whitwell their home in 1960.
Doris says The Lamb was one of seven public houses in the village, some dating back to the 1500s, which were all open until after the Second World War. Most, like Doris’ home, have since been converted into homes and today just two remain – the Maiden’s Head and The Bull.
‘The seven pubs might well have earned the village the nickname ‘drunken Whitwell’ since there were fewer than 1,000 souls in the entire parish.’ Doris explains. ‘Before the First World War the village had a reputation for pub fights that after closing time on a Saturday night spilled over into the High Street. Whatever their social drawbacks, as meeting places for the village it is the pubs that have done most to keep the old ways and old tales belonging to the community alive.’
Doris includes a rhyme about the notorious pubs in her book Tales of Old Hertfordshire.
Beware the BULL don’t toss you, boys,
The SWAN don’t pull you in.
The MAIDEN’S HEAD has often led
Young people in to sin.
The EAGLE’S claws are sharp and strong
The FOX can bite, you know.
The little LAMB can buck and ram,
The WOODMAN lay you low.
It was probably the poachers who were responsible for this folk rhyme, which is thought to be some 200 or more years old, Doris says. She adds, ‘The Lamb was one of their favourite watering holes. Because of the pub’s position at the edge of the village, if the law came near the poachers would scarper into the woods and hide.’
Across the road from the Jones-Baker’s, at the north end of the village, the Whitwell watercress beds still flourish, as they have done since Victorian times. The watercressmen were also known to enjoy a tipple or two at The Lamb where the beer was just a penny a pint.
Soot spreaders drank at The Woodman in the west of the village. Farm wagons from the neighbourhood that took hay and other animal fodder to London came back laden with a cargo of soot from the capital’s chimneys, which was spread by hand across farmland in order to improve fertility. A drink would not go amiss after that kind of work.
It was two soot spreaders, who perhaps having had one too many refreshments, dreamed up a ghostly prank inspired by their drinking hole, which Doris recounts in her Tales. Legend has it The Woodman was named after a ghost – a phantom doomed to chop wood through an eternity of nights in the nearby woods that once existed along Bendish Lane on the edge of the village.
One night in the mid-19th century ‘Tiddly’ Day and ‘Whacky’ Saunders came up with an elaborate plan to terrify workmates Arthur Seabrook and ‘Chippy’ Wood.
The story goes that Tiddly and Whacky wanted to bring Arthur and Chippy down a peg or two, so with an old white sheet, axe and chains they waited at the edge of the woods where the two men were working by moonlight. At break time when they came to the edge of the woods to eat their sandwiches and drink a beer, Arthur and Chippy were greeted by the phantom. Horrified, the two men ‘hollerin’ mightily’ took off at pace, not stopping until they reached the safety of the village.
Doris laughs, ‘It’s not hard to imagine the relish of forbidden fruits as the hoaxers sat down to their intended feast of abandoned beer and sandwiches. They never did find out who their tormentors were.’